Anonymous asks whether it is beneficial to applaud celebrities for going grey. Does it empower women, or does it create new beauty standards? Do women want to be revolutionaries when they accept their natural bodies?
You would only have to take one look at the photos of Andie MacDowell gracing the red carpet at Cannes to know that the fashion world was about to go wild. Her perfectly curled, salt and pepper locks appeared revolutionary, dangerous even, and magazines across the world jumped at the chance to show their appreciation for the actress’ bravery. It was the perfect story; she symbolised women everywhere that had come out of lockdown with more relaxed definitions of beauty.
It is undeniable that these photos of MacDowell are empowering. As a woman existing in a youth-obsessed industry, there is no doubt she might have had second thoughts about accepting her natural hair. In an interview following her decision to go grey so publicly, she revealed that her managers had told her to leave off a little longer. It seemed in Hollywood, 63 was far too young to start ageing. Undeterred and encouraged by other grey-haired women on social media, MacDowell took the plunge and her act of defiance certainly paid off. There is now a correct way to go grey.
MacDowell’s halo of silvery locks has become the advertisement for articles selling expensive shampoos and name-dropping famous hairstylists. Her hair, greying because of a deadly virus that kept everyone indoors, has been fashioned into a revolution. A revolution that sells.
But, can everyone buy into it? I remember staring in horror at my mother when she announced in 2010 that she was about to stop dying her hair. “It will be fine”, she said reassuringly, “Granny’s hair went white so mine probably will too”.
She’d previously been sporting a burgundy shade, and, as it grew out, the colour faded to an unusual carrot tinge. Preceding this at her roots was a harsh band of slate grey and brown, which, and I’m sorry for saying this Mum, would not have been praised in glossy magazines.
My mother’s hair grew out eventually, and it’s beautiful. It took a while, but it is now, not white, but a silky, silvery brown. This makes my mother a grey-haired revolutionary. The change was unsubtle and dramatic, as revolutions often are. She was unhindered by my embarrassment, by pupils that she taught who called her old, and by the local hairdresser that initially* sniffed at her greying roots and orangey ends.
Like my Mum, most women cannot afford to buy shampoos that bring glossy silver tones out of grey. They do not have the time for long consultations with expensive stylists on how best to transition their hair seamlessly. In this way, should we really be applauding wealthy women for taking the plunge when they have all the resources to make the ageing process perfect at every stage?
However, my mother did not want to be a revolutionary. I realised as I was writing this article that I was capitalising on her, making her a hero for ‘ordinary’ women so that I could write something inspiring. In reality, her decision might have had more to do with the fact that she had two young kids and a demanding job. She wanted to do something with her free time other than kneeling, head over the bath, washing out burgundy hair dye. She was merely accepting a normal process of life.
This made me think more about Andie MacDowell and there is one image of the actress that sticks in my mind. Her head is tilted, and her eyes are crinkled because she is smiling. She doesn’t look brave or dangerous, she looks happy. Did MacDowell mean to start a revolution?
It seems that rejections of female beauty standards must become revolutionary to be accepted. In 1999, Julia Roberts became a feminist icon overnight for arriving at the Notting Hill premiere with hairy underarms. And she, like MacDowell, was depicted as ‘badass’ and brave. Whilst this was preferable to her being ridiculed by the media, it still made a natural human state into something daring. Roberts later admitted that she had no intention of making a statement that night.
She simply had not realised that the length of the sleeve would expose her underarms and had forgotten to shave. Normal women might have celebrated the fact that Roberts was Just Like Them! but probably wouldn’t have abandoned their razor for a fear of attention. To put it plainly, this is a call for fashion journalists to leave our bodies alone. Not to spin perceived ‘flaws’ into shiny revolutions. It creates a culture that deems it acceptable to comment on these ‘flaws’, to pick them apart and to turn them into think pieces.
I decided a few years ago to stop shaving so regularly and most nights out am accosted by men and women alike who drunkenly commend my bravery. Sometimes I receive negative attention. Last summer I was in a bar and was asked multiple times if I smelled by a man who eventually decided to push his face into my underarms to see for himself. It was humiliating and I spent the rest of the night listening to his friend’s attempt to diffuse the situation. “You are so brave”, he exclaimed, “… most people just aren’t ready for it”. I’d chosen a new pair of vintage flares that I was extremely excited to wear that day. I’d wanted to show them off to my friends and enjoy the warm weather. Why was that feeling overshadowed by half a centimetre of hair under my arms?
In the same way, fashion journalists should turn the attention back to the purposeful choices of celebrities, stylists, and designers. It was MacDowell’s hair that took centre stage at Cannes, not the intricate beading of her Prada gown and not, sadly, her either. That, to me, is what fashion should be about: artistry and self-expression. Not our bodies, not the things we cannot control.
MacDowell was indeed brave for showing off her beautiful, silvery hair, but she should not have needed to be. You might say this is too optimistic, but all ‘revolutions’ come to an end and the changes they create are, without fuss, accepted by all.
*This hairdresser is a lovely woman and has since changed her mind about my mother’s grey hair. It was 2010, and she just wasn’t ready for it!